It’s a warm late summer evening, the sun has just retired behind the mountains, spreading rays of reddish light across the sky; you are on your way home, strolling along a country road when, all of a sudden, you see them emerge from the shadows of the chestnut grove: rabbits, rabbits riding snails! They wield swords and spears and look very menacing. How many of you has this happened to? To nobody? Well, neither did we actually… and if there is anyone who has had such an experience we kindly ask you not to write it to us in the comments: we prefer not to be entangled with your shady countryside “recreational” activities.
Apparently, this sketch that appears to be a bizarre and delusional hallucination must have had a particular meaning in the Middle Ages: be it the artistic version of a profound and mystical message or, more simply, an ante litteram meme, the story of the battles between rabbits, snails and horsemen is very often represented in the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages… and what better occasion than the release of Pentiment to rattle off some curiosities about the scribes and the antics found in their most eccentric works?
The little jewel of Obsidian Entertainment, in fact, has a splendid art design completely inspired by medieval illustrations (don’t you know it? Repent immediately and seek redemption by reading our review of Pentiment) and hints, among murders, mysteries and alchemies, also at the diffusion of the press. So off we go: down the rabbit hole… hoping to come out safe and sound!
A strange love for rabbits
As you certainly know, before the invention and diffusion of printing, the serial reproduction of the most important texts of Western civilization, both sacred and profane, was entrusted to amanuenses: a complex and expensive job, in terms of effort and money.
Hours and hours of meticulous writing by the copyists, who spent whole days faithfully reproducing Aristotle’s wise words and the verses of the Gospels, bent over sheep’s parchment pages soiled with chestnut ink. A mortal bore, in short. At the time, books were very expensive and not very common objects and it was not uncommon, after the good fortune of having received one on loan, to memorize its contents, in order to somehow always carry it with one.
Anyone who could afford to commission a text for his own private collection must, in all probability, have noble blood and have large sums of money. Thus the books created by the scribes were not limited to re-proposing only the faithful copy of the original manuscripts, but became true works of art: they were in fact enriched with decorations and miniatures of all kinds to satisfy the refined palates of rich patrons. To break up the tedious routine of their work and find new material to insert into the texts, copyists occasionally let their imaginations run wild. And this is where the creepy story of the killer rabbits begins. In the margins of numerous manuscripts (especially between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries) there are in fact illustrations of these animals intent on committing violence of various kinds. The meaning of these very particular miniatures, which have formed an artistic genre called “drolerie”, is not entirely clear. One of the possible interpretations is the one that reads these representations as the result of the irony of the authors: in fact, the rabbit was already a symbol of cowardice in medieval times, and seeing the hairy mammals riding like brave knights, robbing men or killing hunting mastiffs, thus overturning the proverbial cowardice, he had to make the client laugh a lot.
On the other hand, the widespread presence of… snails is more difficult to interpret! In fact, the shy invertebrate is the protagonist of numerous representations in the medieval marginalia, in most cases painted with the intention of fighting ardently against armored knights. It is possible that the snails actually concealed a sort of racist insult, probably aimed at the Lombards. In fact, after the defeat suffered against Charlemagne, the Lombard kingdom in Italy ended definitively.
The reference to the snail derives from the stereotype of little military value generated by the debacle against the Carolingian army. It is very probable that the copyists of the Late Middle Ages, now centuries distant from those events, did not know the original meaning of the allegory, but that, having seen many illustrations of snails and knights, they continued to reproduce them in their works as well. In short, bizarre images that are reproduced through viral diffusion, which make fun of others and also make people laugh: who said that memes are an invention of the twenty-first century?
Elephant to whom?
The life of the amanuensis could not have been very full of exotic adventures: in the Middle Ages, in fact, people hardly ever left the town where they were born, except to visit the market of a nearby village, on pilgrimage, or in rare cases who could afford to travel to study.
So imagine having to represent places and situations through a drawing that you have never seen (the famous case of Piero della Francesca who, having to paint Jerusalem without ever having been there, used the city of Arezzo as a model). The matter becomes enormously complicated, however, if we talk about animals and, let us tell you: it’s better this way, because the results are hilarious. The amanuenses who were forced to depict entire bestiaries on the basis of more or less detailed or even untruthful descriptions, while doing their best, seemed rather in difficulty, especially with the more exotic species. But it is precisely thanks to the imagination of the poor copyists that we have today the opportunity to chuckle about bestiaries containing bearded whales; goat-like giraffes; menacing dolphins with sharp teeth; turtles made of shields; winged crocodiles; smiling scorpions; horned ostriches … and so on and so forth.
However, there are two species of animals with which the scribes had to face the greatest difficulties, giving us the most amusing results: the elephant and the hippopotamus.
There must have been something in the concept of proboscis that was supposed to generate a sort of creative short-circuit in the minds of the artists of the manuscripts. Furthermore, among the various curiosities, one can also find improbable behaviors of some animal species, images generated by false myths about their habits. Just to cite the most curious examples we include the gluttonous ostrich, intent on eating a horseshoe. This would derive from the legend according to which the animal’s stomach was able to digest anything. Rarer, but no less interesting for this, are representations of vain tigers holding a mirror in their jaws: a symbol of the rumor that the puppies of the boastful feline could be stolen by distracting him with his reflected image.
The Bible Factory
As every year, a magical and solemn moment is approaching. The air is already filled with a festive atmosphere and all together we are preparing to celebrate, decorating and beautifying our homes, December 25th: the anniversary of the coronation of Charlemagne, of course!
Can you believe that the greatest ruler of all time could not write? Yes, because the king of the Lombards and the Franks and first Emperor of the Romans simply wrote… it didn’t help: there were those who did it for him. It was exclusively the members of the clergy who dealt with the writing of laws and proclamations and with the copying of the sacred texts. Having to unify his vast possessions also from a cultural and religious point of view, Charles and his advisers faced a significant problem: due to the errors of some inattentive copyist, sacred texts full of typos had spread throughout the kingdom. The Bible, in other words, did not have a unified text due to the domino effect generated by oversights and blunders accumulated over the centuries.
Thus it was that Charles set up two different commissions, headed by two of the most prominent intellectuals and philosophers of the time: Alcuin of York and Theodulf the Visigoth. The commissions had the task of going back in time, sifting through the documents in order to identify the “original” biblical text, the one most faithful to the word of God. In the end it was Alcuin’s commission that prevailed and convinced Charles of the authenticity of that version.
To ensure that every church in the kingdom had its “authentic” copy of sacred texts, a real “Bible factory” was founded. It was the abbey of San Martino in Tours, where hundreds of scribe monks dedicated themselves body and soul to the mass production of Bibles, financed directly by the emperor who had entire sheep pastures prepared for the production of skins, on which to meticulously copy the Old and New Testaments written by Alcuin. The enormous economic, organizational and work effort, at its maximum capacity, generated an impressive annual production of… two Bibles!
You will now better understand the true value of books in the Middle Ages: priceless masterpieces on which someone had the audacity to draw a rabbit arguing with a snail. The inventor of the press may have allowed the diffusion of ideas, the development of the scientific revolution and free thought … but he took away the medieval memes. Damn you…Johannes Gutenberg!